In Memoriam: Elizabeth T. Bunce


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death December 13, 2003, of Scientist Emeritus Elizabeth T. Bunce at Falmouth Hospital after a brief illness. She was 88.

Elizabeth Thompson "Betty" Bunce was born April 25, 1915, in Mineola, New York.   She attended Northfield School, graduating in 1933, and Smith College, where she was a physical education major with an interest in government and constitutional law. She graduated from Smith with a bachelor's degree in 1937 and a certificate in physical education in 1941. Her love of sports, particularly field hockey and lacrosse, led her to graduate work in physical education and a four-year position as a physical education teacher at the Kent Place School in New Jersey.   She was a member of the All-American Reserve team and a national honorary judge and umpire in both sports.

Her long affiliation with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began with a chance summer vacation in 1944 to visit a friend working at the Institution. That led to a job in the underwater explosives research group, known as Navy 7, headed by J. Brackett Hersey. She worked off and on during the summers while teaching and then attending graduate school.

Interested in the theory behind the research she was part of at WHOI, Betty Bunce returned to Smith College and received a master's degree in physics in 1949, spending summers at WHOI as a technician. She worked as an instructor in physics at Smith from 1949 to 1951, leaving to join the WHOI staff full-time as a research associate in July 1952, a position she thought would last no more than two years. She was appointed an associate scientist in 1964, a senior scientist in 1975, and a scientist emeritus in 1980. Betty was the first woman to serve as a Department Chair at WHOI, serving as Acting Chair of the Geology and Geophysics Department a number of times in the 1970s and 1980s.

Betty sailed aboard many WHOI ships, including Bear and Asterias , but her cruises aboard Chain and Atlantis II were perhaps the most noteworthy in her career.   Betty's colleagues note that she was a jack of all trades, a trail blazer and straight talker, and a very loyal friend. She appeared on the popular television program "To Tell the Truth" in the early 1960s and fooled three of the four panelists, who did not select her as an oceanographer.   Famous for working out with a punching bag aboard ship, Betty maintained her love of sports throughout her life.   She played squash, and was often seen rowing in the waters around Woods Hole. She also enjoyed bird watching.

Her research interests were crustal structure, marine seismology, reflection and refraction, and underwater acoustics associated with seafloor studies. She was the author or co-author of more than 25 papers in marine geophysics. In 1971 she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Smith College.

The first American woman to serve as chief scientist on a major oceanographic expedition, Betty Bunce opened the door for other woman desiring to enter oceanography. She subsequently served as chief scientist on many cruises, including a major portion of the Indian Ocean expedition in 1964 and in 1971 headed a team on the Chain conducting site surveys in the Indian Ocean for future scientific drilling.   She was a member of several scientific societies and served on many scientific committees.

In March 1995 she was honored at the Institution's second "Woman Pioneers in Oceanography" seminar, during which her friends and colleagues recounted some of her many contributions to oceanography. She was a woman of many "firsts": the first woman chosen as a chief scientist on a deep-sea drilling cruise aboard Glomar Challenger , the first woman scientist to go to sea routinely, and the first woman to dive in Alvin (1965).   She also lay claim as the first western woman to present a paper in marine geophysics at the International Union of Geology and Geophysics in Finland in 1960.

Betty was honored earlier this year when the Bunce Fault in the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, was named in her honor. The large tectonic fault system at the bottom of the trench was discovered by a team from the US Geological Survey and the University of New Hampshire, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration.

Active in the community, Betty volunteered for many years at Falmouth Hospital and at the West Falmouth Library.   Until recently she resided in the home she designed in West Falmouth.

Survivors include a sister, Bailey Young of Venice, Florida, and a nephew, Tom Young of Newport Beach, CA. Funeral arrangements were private. A celebration of Betty Bunce's life will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, donations in Betty Bunce's memory may be made to Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 350 South Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02130.


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Elizabeth "Betty" Bunce (Vicky Cullen, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution )